College is an amazing time in life to meet diverse people, make connections and discover your goals. The opportunity to create a unique pathway for your future should be exciting every day (even if finding a parking space isn’t). Your time at UCF is valuable and how you spend it has the potential to make your college experience memorable and meaningful.
From reflecting on my own experience and asking other students, professionals and educators, here are 10 things I wish I knew before starting college.
1. It’s important to get involved.
I first came to UCF in the spring of 2016 after receiving my associate degree at Valencia College. As an Orlando native, I always knew about UCF but didn’t realize just how big the university is. I worried that since I was a junior upon arrival and didn’t live on campus, I wouldn’t be able to get involved in school without feeling like an outsider. Being a first-generation college student, I didn’t have a clue where to start. How was I supposed to find any friends if I couldn’t even find my classes?
Getting involved will be something that defines your college experience.
Luckily, the major I chose turned out to be a great fit for me. The classes I took in the writing and rhetoric department allowed me to interact with my peers on a personal level and it only took a few weeks of stressing out over papers together to realize a lot of us were in the same situation and looking for ways to get involved. I joined the student ambassador program for my department and started getting to know and hang out with the people who were in my major. It’s amazing what a few events with free pizza can do to develop lifelong friendships.
UCF is full of incredible resources, but it’s up to you to find them. Whether it’s finding a yoga meetup, taking care of your mental health, joining a campus club, or attending a resume workshop with career services, getting involved will be something that defines your college experience.
2. Seek out scholarships and apply. No seriously, just apply.
Millions of dollars of scholarship money goes unclaimed each year, even as student loan debt has reached a collective $1.5 trillion in the United States. In other words, there’s no reason to not apply for free money. Even though UCF is a best-value university with up to 50 percent of students graduating debt-free, there are a multitude of scholarships available to students depending on your degree programs, academic record and future goals.
Millions of dollars of scholarship money goes unclaimed each year.
Spending my first two years at a state college saved me a lot of money on tuition, but so did the decision to live at home until graduation. To help with car and travel expenses to campus, I held a part-time job or paid internship during each semester. It was hard working throughout all four years of college, but it taught me how to balance multiple responsibilities and be aware of my financial decisions.
In that balance, I’ve found that grades really do matter if you want to curb college expenses. Financial aid has been available to me every semester, but doing well in my classes has increased the amount of additional grant money available to me. Even if you don’t think you qualify, it never hurts to fill out an application for Federal Student Aid. You can also fill out a general application and see your matched scholarships through UCF Access to Opportunities.
3. Focus on your plan instead of worrying about how you compare to others.
When I graduated from high school, I never pictured myself getting a four-year degree. My plan was to get a vocational degree in theatre tech so I could string some lights up at one of the theme parks in Orlando. After realizing the DirectConnect to UCF program was a good fit for me, I ended up at UCF without any regret for the journey that got me here.
One the most important things about college is that you will interact with people from all walks of life —different cultures, abilities, races, nationalities, aspirations and socio-economic backgrounds. Remember that every person has their own path, including you. While it will be tempting to think about the internship or job offers someone in your class has already gotten or the schools they’ve been accepted to, the important thing to remember is that you are doing things the way they best fit your learning experience. The world won’t stop revolving if you aren’t elected president of a club, change your major or stay an extra semester.
What matters is being prepared for the future you choose to create.
4. Take advantage of tutoring, advising and office hours.
Sometimes the semester comes at you fast. It can be tough to ask for help, but you’re never alone in the asking. Everyone has that one subject or class that’s a struggle. For me, it was statistical methods. It took going to tutoring every day after my class had ended to sit down and attempt to piece together what I had just learned. Even though math was never my strong suit, with tutoring I ended up passing my statistical methods course with one of the highest class averages.
Everyone has that one subject or class that’s a struggle.
There are reasons UCF has resources such as the writing center that help you with assignments ranging from introductory composition assignments to full-length dissertations. Even if you’re a pro at viewing your degree audit and figuring out what classes to sign up for, advisors are here to make sure you’re taking the steps that will most benefit you. If a professor invites you to tutoring or open office hours, consider stopping by. Not only can you gain assistance or advice, but you’ll build rapport with them that will be memorable for future help and recommendation letters.
5. Explore your city.
There’s hardly ever been a better time to be in Orlando as a college student. The city is one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the United States and is quickly becoming a destination city beyond the lure of theme parks. One of my favorite weekend things to do in Central Florida is to spend a day out at Wekiva Island —a lively riverfront spot about 30 minutes west of campus where you can rent kayaks, canoes and paddleboards. The best part? It’s dog friendly.
[Orlando] is diverse and there’s something for just about every interest.
If you’re looking for local fun, try visiting one of Florida’s natural springs. Buy discount Disney tickets at the Student Union, eat at the delicious and creative food truck scene downtown, or feel the infectious energy coming from a wall of purple smoke at an Orlando City soccer game. The city is diverse and there’s something for just about every interest.
6. Surround yourself with people who reflect who you want to be and how you want to feel.
Even though there’s fun to be had, college still requires time management and work.
It’s easier to focus on your own goals if your friends are taking their goals seriously. I had a friend from high school that I really cared about, but as I made my way through each semester, I could feel a sense of bitterness growing in our friendship because I started to become more involved in extracurricular activities at UCF. It was difficult to admit, but I knew things were changing for me, and my friend didn’t want to celebrate the things I was passionate about.
Sometimes it takes meeting new people to realize the ones you’ve kept around are no longer growing with you. You’ll want to hang out with people who encourage you to be your best self. Your friends won’t resent you if you have to say “no” to going out in order to study for an upcoming exam. Those who understand you will support you, and those who don’t aren’t really your friends.
7. Seek out advice from professionals in your field.
Finding a mentor can be highly beneficial to your professional development. If you’re unsure of what steps you should take after graduation, try asking your friends, family or professors to connect you with someone who is doing the kind of things you want to be doing. Someone who is new in their field can offer advice on how they got their start, which may give you ideas on where to begin, as well as be a contact within your network.
It’s never too early to get connected to the resources and people that will help your future.
Since starting at UCF, I always had an interest in how the fields of writing and public policy work together. In the spring of my senior semester, I participated in the UCF Legislative Scholars program that sent me to live and work in Florida’s capital. Besides the incredible professional experience the program gave me, I also made lifelong friends and mentors. It’s never too early to get connected to the resources and people that will help your future.
8. Maintain your grades at the beginning to create a safety net for yourself later on.
GPA may not always be the defining factor in one’s career, but there’s little debate that the ability to get good grades and perform well in school reflects a strong work ethic and drive to learn. It can also lead to scholarships providing more money for your expenses.
At the beginning of each semester, strategically plan your time management so you get ahead for the term. If the material becomes more difficult later on, you’ll have some room to breathe. One of the things I always make sure to do during the first week is scout all the freebies being handed out on campus and look for the student planner. Getting into the habit of writing in a planner has done wonders for my ability to actually remember when I have quizzes due. Webcourses is usually reliable, but I’ve found that keeping physical notes about when things are due helps your grade more than you might imagine.
9. Enroll in one class you never thought you would take.
If your program permits you the opportunity, you should take a course that challenges your beliefs or perspective. I’ll never forget the semester when I signed up for Ethics of Law. I needed to fill a requirement for my legal studies minor and ended up enrolled in a course on the death penalty. My professor was a defense attorney in Orlando and had incredible connections in the field. She brought in guest speakers that included a homicide detective and state prosecutor Jeff Ashton, who served on the Casey Anthony trial. I never imagined that simply enrolling in that course would introduce me to experts in the legal field, and an entire new way of looking at capital punishment.
Taking classes outside of your comfort zone will also make you think critically.
Taking classes outside of your comfort zone will also make you think critically, developing a valuable skill set for potential employers. Ask your advisors about interesting or new classes that would complement your curriculum. You may end up in a psychology course focusing on human-animal interaction or even a literature studies class on Harry Potter.
10. Find your interests and follow them.
If I had never chosen to pursue writing, you would probably have never read this.
When I first started at UCF, I ran into a former middle school teacher of mine who was taking students on a tour. He asked me what I was majoring in, and I told him a little about the writing department. He looked at me with sympathy and said, “Good luck finding a job.” Little did he know, I never needed luck. College isn’t about being lucky. It’s about building upon the knowledge you learn every day to get a little closer to your goals.
Life is too short to not do the things that interest and inspire you.
One of the things that makes college such a unique, transformational experience is that there are so many ways to discover your goals and discover the world. Life is too short to not do the things that interest and inspire you. Start a club that plays Super Smash Brothers in front of the Chick-fil-a on campus. Take a Zumba class at the rec center. Skip a party to watch movies with your roommate. Take your roommate to a party. Get politically involved. Win a national championship. Take cooking classes. Jump in the Reflecting Pond. Prove that Pluto actually is a planet.
Whatever you choose, the experience is yours. And UCF is a great place to start.
Melissa Mitchum is a writing and rhetoric major and legal studies minor at UCF, and works as an intern for UCF Downtown. When she’s not creating content for social media, she spends her time exploring Orlando with her French bulldog, Frank.